The invisible chains of slavery

Mrs. Thu was 32 years old and had a young son when she was trafficked. 28 years later, Blue Dragon rescued her from slavery.

The story seems too incredible to be true.

Almost three decades in slavery, sold as a bride and forced to have children to a man she never loved.

How could any person be in slavery for so long?

Myth v. Reality

There’s a common stereotype of how human trafficking works.

A well-resourced gang of men in dark suits grabs their victim off the street, stuffing her into the back of a van. She is taken far from home and locked into a dark room, chained to a wall.

In reality, that’s rarely how it works.

Most of the time, victims are deceived by someone they trust, not grabbed in broad daylight.

And they don’t need to be chained up or locked into a room to be enslaved.

There are many ways to keep a person in slavery. Threats of violence… holding someone’s identity papers and controlling their finances… making them dependent on you for their survival… creating a ‘debt’ that they must work to pay off…

Or, as in Mrs Thu’s case, forcing them to have babies and using the bond of a mother and her child.

A degree of freedom

Mrs Thu’s world turned upside down.

A person she knew as a friend tricked her into agreeing to travel with her to China. They were meant to be gone on business just some days and then they would both be home with their families.

But Mrs Thu would not return for 28 years.

At first she fought against the man who bought her, refusing to succumb.

Hundreds of miles from home, with no way to call anyone for help, she had no choice but to eventually accept what had happened.

Despite having her own family in Vietnam, she became the wife of a Chinese man.

Once she fell pregnant, escape became even harder; and when her child was born, it became impossible.

Mrs Thu’s ‘husband’ treated her well, as long as she complied, so she learned to navigate this terrifying new reality.

In bride trafficking, forcing a woman to have a child is a common strategy to stop her from escaping. With thanks to @isaac.q.q for this image.

Before long she was learning a few words of a new language and gained some degree of freedom. She could go shopping, take her child to school, even go traveling with her new family at times.

To an outsider, Mrs. Thu looked like an ordinary mother raising a family in a small Chinese town.

She was there by force, but now she had children to care for and nobody to help her find her way back to Vietnam. For many years, Mrs. Thu thought she would never see her own home again.

Call for help

In recent years, the availability of new technology meant that she was able to contact people back in Vietnam. But who could she call?

Her son would be a grown man and she had no way to know where he might live or work… or even if he was still alive. And if she could contact him, what would he think? Did he grow up believing that his mother had abandoned him?

When the youngest of her Chinese children turned 18, Mrs Thu knew that they would be OK without her. It was time to finally make her escape.

We can’t share the details of how it unfolded, but a call for help from Mrs. Thu reached Blue Dragon and we sent a team to bring her home.

Even though it was painfully difficult to leave the children she had raised in China and come back to the unknown in Vietnam, she was absolutely determined.

Many questions, no answers

Mrs Thu is safe but her future is far from certain. Soon she will be reunited with her son, who is in his 30s now. He’s about the same age as his mother was when she vanished. After all this time, can they have a life together? What awaits Mrs. Thu back in her hometown? And what will become of her grown children in China?

Many questions but no answers. This is a story that’s far from over.

What happened to Mrs. Thu reminds us that trafficking doesn’t fit neatly into our expectations. The chains of slavery may be invisible, but their grip on innocent lives is very real.

In every form it takes, human trafficking is a crime of the worst kind.

We must do all that we can to rid our world of it.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking.

Fairytale endings

Aged 14, Bac walked 150km from his home to the city, hoping to find work. Desperate to survive, his life took some unexpected turns…

Bac just wanted to find a job.

Ever since his father died, life had been hard. Really hard.

His mother struggled to feed Bac and his little sister. Every day seemed miserable.

So when he heard some neighbors talking about all the great job opportunities in Hanoi, 150km to the north, Bac started dreaming that life could be different.

Even though he was only 14, Bac thought that he could help his mother by dropping out of school and getting a job. She would only have to look after his sister and he could send home some of the money he earned in the city.

Finally he decided to do it. With just 2000 dong in his pocket – barely a few cents – he set out to follow his dream.

A country road in rural Vietnam. Street kids sometimes walk from their homes to the city, hoping to find new opportunities.

At first his journey felt like an adventure. When Bac reached the city several days later, all he could see was possibility. He met some street kids who helped set him up with his first shoeshine box and then he walked the pavements, cleaning and polishing the shoes of strangers.

It took about a week for the excitement to wear off and for the hunger and isolation to set in. Sleeping in parks, running away from angry shop owners who saw street kids as a nuisance, and dodging the police wasn’t the life that he wanted.

A change of fortunes

That’s when I met Bac.

Blue Dragon was still in its infancy. It was July 2004, and there was a handful of us volunteering our time to help street kids. It was the weekend and I was sitting at a cafe in Hanoi’s Old Quarter when Bac went by. I called him over and offered him a drink.

Bac’s life changed from that moment. Not just because he had someone to help him, but because he finally had a way to realise his potential.

One of our volunteers took Bac back to his mother’s home in the countryside. (That volunteer, Van, is now Blue Dragon’s lawyer, rescuing victims of human trafficking and representing them in court).

Once he was home, we supported Bac’s mother so that she could keep her son and daughter in school. Bac showed tremendous potential and finished Grade 12 with outstanding results.

Thanks to some wonderful friends, Bruce and Joanne, Bac received a scholarship to study IT at college… and then another friend, Isaac, sponsored him to go to New Zealand for further studies there.

It’s nearly 20 years since that day I met Bac at the cafe. He’s now settled in New Zealand, happily married and working in a great IT job.

His journey started on a summer’s day in 2004 when he decided to walk to the city in the hope of a better future. He could never have guessed it would take him through higher education and all the way to another country.

An old story?

After all these years, telling Bac’s story isn’t just a trip down memory lane.

His story has an almost fairytale-ending. Little boy lost makes it in the big world; a rags to riches (well, metaphorically) tale.

But the story isn’t over, because there’s a new ‘Bac’ every day.

Blue Dragon has outreach workers on the streets of Hanoi day and night looking for children who need a helping hand. Last week, we met 5 children who are new to the streets. The youngest is aged just 6 and the oldest is 15.

Why are they coming to the city? For exactly the same reasons as Bac. Desperate for opportunity. In need of support. Hoping for a chance to turn their lives around.

Like Bac, some have the potential to go on to higher studies, earn scholarships and pursue professional careers. Others might be destined for vocational courses, or for staying in their hometown and raising a family. They certainly don’t need to live and work abroad to be considered a ‘success story.’

But every one of the children we meet can be so much more than a street kid trying to survive. Every one of them deserves a chance to live in safety, to receive an education and to be masters of their own future.

Every one deserves the chance to have their own fairytale ending.

Thank you for reading! Life is a long story and we all have our part to play. Right now Blue Dragon is asking for donations to our emergency appeal to help young people just like Bac. If you would like to help with a gift of any amount, you can donate here.

Meeting Minh

Overwhelmed with problems, Minh was 15 when she left home and found herself alone on the city streets. A chance encounter changed her life.

Before becoming co-CEO at Blue Dragon, Vi Do had various roles within the organisation – including as an outreach worker. Every night, he would walk the streets of Hanoi looking for homeless children in need of a helping hand.

Today’s blog shares a recent post from Vi’s LinkedIn, telling the story of a girl he met on the streets seven years ago who recently returned to Blue Dragon as a final-year university student.

Read on to be inspired!

In life, we meet so many people and we never know how our interaction with them will touch their life.

Seven years ago, I met 15-year-old Minh on the streets of Hanoi. She was having a difficult time at home and didn’t know what to do. So she left home to give herself time and space to think through her problems.

As an outreach worker and former street kid, I knew how dangerous life on the streets can be. Getting Minh to safety and then reunited with her family was the most important thing I could do. And fortunately, with some counselling and support, she and her family were able to work through their problems.

Earlier this week, I was so happy to meet up with Minh once again. She’s now in the final months of a Communications and Journalism degree at university. Remembering her experience with Blue Dragon as a teenager, she wanted to write an article about us for her major final project.

Vi and Minh at Blue Dragon

It’s amazing to think that just a little help made such a difference. Without help, Minh’s life could have followed a very different path. But now she’s a happy, independent young woman setting out on an important career where she can help many others.

Something that she said when we met was really important to me:

“Blue Dragon helped me more than just giving me safe accommodation and resolving some personal problems. You gave me faith and drive to overcome difficulties. I am very grateful and will always remember those who helped me when I needed it most.”

When we care for someone in need, we never know the impact it will have on their life. Meeting Minh reminds me that we should never hesitate to help those around us.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to protect kids from trafficking and exploitation.

Raising the cost

Chu and Thuan were sold to a brothel far from home. The trafficker, a woman from their village, never imagined they could escape. She was wrong.

The trafficker thought it would be simple.

She knew Chu and Thuan from her village high up in the mountains. She was able to convince them, both women in their early 30s, that they could easily find a job if they went with her.

Chu and Thuan wanted nothing more than to support their families.

In post-Covid rural Vietnam, job opportunities are few and far between. The woman who approached them was familiar and seemed friendly; Chu and Thuan could never imagine she was a human trafficker who would sell them to brothels in Myanmar.

The two women endured two months of terror in violent brothels before Blue Dragon could find them and get them out. Their journey back to Vietnam over land was a nail-biting four days through jungle and across rivers. Now they are safe and their trafficker is in on the run.

Chu and Thuan on the 4-day journey home.

An economic strategy

I’ve written recently about Blue Dragon’s strategy to end human trafficking in Vietnam. We use a technique that we call “integrated clustering” in which we apply numerous interventions and activities all at the same time to stop trafficking from happening.

Our rescue operations are a part of those “clusters of activities.”

On their own, the rescues are powerful humanitarian acts, bringing home people from brutal and horrifying slavery so that they can start life over.

As part of our strategy, they are also a powerful tool to stop trafficking.

From the trafficker’s point of view, the whole purpose of deceiving and selling somebody is simply to make money.

When we rescue people from slavery, we raise the cost of human trafficking.

The woman who took Chu and Thuan couldn’t see any way that her victims could escape. But they did. They’re back in Vietnam now. With a Blue Dragon lawyer by their side, they’ve reported every detail to the police.

So while their trafficker is yet to be arrested, she’s already out of business. She can’t come back for more victims.

Every rescue raises the cost of trafficking, increasing the chances that traffickers will be caught and prosecuted.

In this way, our rescues are part of a strategy to hurt the traffickers economically, pushing them to finding other, safer ways to make their money.

A week of rescues

Chu and Thuan weren’t the only people to get to safety this week.

On Friday, we rescued a 24-year-old Vietnamese woman named May who was trafficked to China when she was 17 and sold as a bride.

And earlier in the week we assisted 3 young men and a 15-year-old boy who were enslaved on a fishing boat. They took a massive risk to escape on their own, diving into the sea and waiting to be found by another vessel. Their risk paid off and now Blue Dragon is providing legal representation so that their traffickers can be arrested.

The possibility ahead

All of this has been possible thanks to Blue Dragon’s amazing supporters.

A week ago, we launched an emergency appeal to ask for help. As this past week has shown, calls for help from people in slavery are at an all time high. So we have been asking our friends to donate so that we can keep up with this urgent demand.

We’ve had a really positive response so far and if this continues we’ll be in a strong position to respond to every call that reaches us.

Every call is urgent and time sensitive. We simply can’t tell people to wait until we have enough money. We must be ready to go at any time.

This is why Chu and Thuan are home now. And why May is home after 7 years in slavery. And why 4 young men are safely on land instead of being held captive at sea.

When we raise the cost of human trafficking, the traffickers must think twice. Forcing them to stop their abuse is a vital part of this effort to keep people safe.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is asking for help. Please donate to our emergency appeal so that every call for rescue can be answered.

Emergency appeal

Human trafficking is on the rise, threatening to overwhelm Blue Dragon’s resources. But this crisis is also an opportunity to change lives.

In the coming days, Blue Dragon supporters will be receiving an email asking for help. Keep an eye on your inbox.

It’s one of these things about working in a non-profit. The work that we do saves lives and transforms communities; but it’s totally dependent on the goodness of people who choose to donate.

For Blue Dragon, this is a particularly important point. We deal with people in crisis all the time. All the time.

Not a day goes by without a call for help from someone who has been trafficked, enslaved, and abused.

Not a day goes by without us meeting homeless kids on the city streets, separated from family and in considerable danger.

We’re working around the clock to keep people safe. We walk the streets and the parks at night, searching under bridges and in abandoned building sites looking for children. We arrange and execute rescue operations to get people out of brothels and forced labour camps in neighbouring countries.

A Blue Dragon staff member talks with homeless children.

There’s never a day without someone in urgent need of help.

Since we began, Blue Dragon has been rescuing people who had nobody else to turn to. If someone is in danger and there’s nobody else to help, we always say yes, no matter how difficult the situation is.

And so the idea that one day we might not be able to respond to every call is our greatest fear. That’s why we ask for support from the global community; donations mean that kids get rescued.

What would have happened?

Right now, Blue Dragon is facing a crisis.

As the world moves on from the days of Covid restrictions, human trafficking has evolved and worsened.

Before Covid, Blue Dragon was mostly rescuing people who had been trafficked to one country, China. Now we’re rescuing from five countries, and the number of calls for help are at a sustained all-time high.

Same with kids on the streets of Hanoi. We’re meeting more homeless children and often these kids are not yet even teens. Most have been driven to the city by poverty and desperation. Once here, they are targets for all sorts of exploitation.

Just this weekend, we came across two boys aged 16 sleeping out in the open. They had come to the city believing they would find work so they could support their families financially. Within a few days they had exhausted the little money they brought with them and had no way to call home for help. They were dirty, hungry and afraid.

If we hadn’t met them when we did, what would have happened to them?

But with the level of need so high, this is a real risk that we are facing. For the first time in our history, we’re struggling to keep up with the huge need that we are seeing.

A crisitunity

In a long-past episode of TV classic The Simpsons, Lisa said to Homer:

Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for “crisis” as they do for “opportunity”?

To which her father replied:

Yes. “Crisitunity”! You’re right.

I’m not sure that I agree that every crisis is an opportunity, but some certainly are.

And this current situation is definitely a crisitunity.

The need in the community is close to overwhelming us. But if we can make it through, there’s a world of good that we can achieve.

The kids who are out on the city streets can be safe.

The children, women and men who have been trafficked into slavery can be set free.

It’s all possible. Even with heightened need here in Vietnam and around the world, nobody needs to be left behind.

That’s why we’re asking for help. We’ve launched an Emergency Appeal, which you can find here on our website. We’re asking our supporters to give a donation of any amount so that we can respond to this elevated level of need that we are seeing.

A lot is at stake. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If you’re able to help, please do. It may just save somebody’s life.

Your donation to the Blue Dragon emergency appeal will pay for rescue operations and emergency care for young people who have been trafficked or are homeless.

Still fighting

Dozens of boys were raped by a foreign doctor. Despite the clear evidence, justice is yet to be fully achieved.
WARNING: this post discusses child sexual abuse.

Ban is starting a new job this week. Again.

His family doesn’t understand why he just can’t stick with anything. He’s a young man now but doesn’t seem interested in getting married or settling down. He doesn’t have any close friends and he has no plans for the future.

Ban is drifting through life from one day to the next. He seems to live without any hope.

Ban is one of the many rape victims of Olivier Larroque, a French doctor who was living in Vietnam until his arrest in 2013.

Larroque was notorious on the streets of Hanoi. All the homeless kids knew of him.

Every night, he rode his bicycle to the lake where street kids gathered and picked out a boy to abuse.

The children were broke and hungry. Many had such low self esteem that they didn’t care for their own safety. As much as they hated Larroque, they would go with him if they were desperate enough.

Larroque would take the boy back to his apartment to rape him and film the abuse. Then he would send the boy away and often go back to the lake to choose a second victim for the night.

A street kid alone in a park.

At that time, Vietnamese law was not clear about whether a male could be the victim of a sexual crime. Blue Dragon’s work led to a change in the law in 2016, but when Larroque was abusing children there was a loophole that made it very difficult for the authorities to take action.

Larroque’s victims were so afraid that photos of their abuse would be shared online that one brave teen stole a memory card from the doctor’s camera to give us the evidence needed to stop him. Believing that the French police were in a stronger position to ensure justice, we handed it to them.

A few months later, interpol issued an arrest warrant and Larroque was extradited to France.

Despite the high number of victims and the photographic evidence, it took nine years for the case to reach court. For most of that time, Larroque was living as a free man. The victims of his abuse never heard a word from the French government about what was happening with the case – it seemed to have just been forgotten.

And then last year, news reached us that Larroque was missing. Nobody knew where he was.

The police found him two weeks later and a date for his trial was set. When the trial finally came around… Larroque was gone again. Nobody had seen fit to lock him up despite the fact that he had already absconded once.

Larroque’s court case went ahead without him present and he received the maximum penalty: 20 years in prison.

But with his whereabouts unknown, the court decision is just theoretical. And if he is found, he has the choice to appeal the decision and have the whole case heard again.

Meanwhile, the court also ruled that some compensation be paid – far below the level requested, and only some of the victims will receive it. Ban is one of the boys who will receive nothing.

There have been many other injustices along the way, too.

Like the NGO that joined the court case as a “civil party” and leaked parts of the children’s statements to the media, without the children’s consent.

And the fact that Larroque’s employer, the French Hospital of Hanoi, has never so much as expressed concern for the victims of his crimes. They have no legal responsibility for what happened, but it seems very poor form that a hospital would have no interest in the welfare of children who were raped by one of their senior doctors.

Despite Larroque’s arrest and sentencing, his victims are yet to see justice done.

Through these years, there have of course been some bright spots.

Larroque’s victims have been most fortunate to receive free legal representation from some excellent pro bono lawyers.

Emma Day of Child Redress International took a leading advocacy role from the start, along with Shireen Irani of iProbono. Christopher Mesnooh of Fieldfisher has been part of the case for years and represented the boys in court late in 2022.

There were many failings in the system, but the boys did have some wonderful support – and still do.

The case is not yet over and we are continuing to advocate for them to receive compensation.

Although the boys are all young men now, Blue Dragon is continuing to help several, like Ban, who still need counseling and material support to cope with all that has happened.

For our world to be right and for people to be whole, there must be justice. In this case, we are not there yet.

But we are still fighting for it.

You can read more about the case in this VICE article; and you can see the original news stories about Larroque’s arrest back in 2013. If you share our vision of a world where every child is free from exploitation, visit Blue Dragon’s website to learn more.

A Cluster of Goats

Keeping kids safe from trafficking is about addressing their human needs. But’s it’s not always as simple as that sounds.

Walking up the hill toward his family home, Van faced a wave of emotions.

After weeks being homeless on the streets of Hanoi, Van longed for the familiarity of home. He finally knew he was safe.

Even more than that, he would soon be with his father and uncle, back with those he loved and who loved him.

But alongside this joy and sense of relief, Van also felt a certain dread.

Van arriving at his family home.

Like so many young people growing up in poverty, home is not always a happy place for Van. A few weeks ago, I shared the story of how Van came to leave his mountain home and travel alone to the city for work, even though he’s still a child.

Blue Dragon found Van after he’d been robbed and left with nothing, and we accompanied him back to his home to meet his family.

Changing fortunes

After sharing the post, some awesome people around the world donated to give Van a chance to start over.

We’re working with the family step by step, and have already helped them buy some goats and build a basic pen.

It may seem a little strange: we meet a homeless boy in Hanoi and part of the solution to keep him safe is to buy goats.

In fact, keeping kids and families safe often takes a lot of creativity. Because there’s no single intervention that will help everyone. Instead, we have to understand what each person needs, taking their community context into account, and find out what their own dreams and hopes are.

Van’s family needs goats so they can earn some money – it’s as simple as that.

Several of the new herd.

Now that they have the goats, we’ll arrange for a local veterinarian to teach them to care for the animals. And our next step will be making repairs to the house to make it safe and comfortable. We don’t have enough money to build a whole new house but we can definitely make some significant improvements.

Integrated clustering

Last week, my colleagues and I spoke in a webinar about this idea of tailoring a package of activities or services toward the specific local needs of a family and a community in order to keep them safe from being trafficked.

We call it “integrated clustering” which sounds rather technical but it’s a simple idea. It’s about putting in place several actions which go hand in hand with each other to protect people from the risk of trafficking. Like fixing someone’s house, sending the kids to school and buying some goats.

And it goes even further: buying the goats alone isn’t enough. The family needs training in how to care for them. In coming months they might need business advice on where to sell the goat milk or the offspring at the best price.

It’s not just one simple ‘fix’ to solve a problem. It’s several actions working together to lift a family, or a community, out of poverty. When we do this, human traffickers don’t stand a chance.

Meeting human needs

There’s a bit more to it, of course. The “integrated cluster” approach may involve arranging rescue operations, or working with law enforcement. For many, psychological care or emergency shelter may be part of the cluster.

Does all of that sounds like “common sense”? Then you’ve understood that this approach is simply addressing basic human needs. And human needs may be basic in one sense, but in another they are complex.

They’re basic in that our needs today are the same needs we were born with. Love, safety, food, belonging.

And they’re complex because they all work together and vary depending on our individual nature and set of circumstances.

Blue Dragon’s “integrated clustering” approach is key to how we are keeping kids and families safe around Vietnam.

For young Van and his family, it means they are now on their way to financial security and having a home that protects their dignity.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is determined to end human trafficking. We operate programs to prevent trafficking; we rescue people who fall victim to it; we support survivors in their recovery; and we work on law reform initiatives to strengthen government systems.

Rescue is not enough

Many of Blue Dragon’s rescues end with a beautiful reunion of family members. Some, however, end with a tragic discovery.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of rescue operations to combat human trafficking.

Today I want to share another perspective: that as important as they are, rescues alone are simply not enough.

One of the joys of my job is receiving photos from staff out in the field who have accompanied home one of the people we have rescued from slavery. I get these photos almost every day.

Often, they are photos of pure joy. The beaming faces of mother and daughter with their arms wrapped around each other. The tears of a father holding his teenage child who he feared he would never see again.

I usually can’t share these images because I need to protect the privacy of these families. So I try to emulate that joy here on the blog.

But sometimes the moment of returning home is not an occasion for joy at all. Sometimes it is a moment of devastation.

This week was one of those occasions.

Blue Dragon rescued 34-year Tuyen just a week ago. She had been tricked by a distant relative into traveling to China – all the way from southern Vietnam, close to Ho Chi Minh City – thinking that she was on her way to a job where she could earn a decent living.

That was in 2019. Instead of being offered a job, Tuyen was sold as a bride and held against her will for four years. Blue Dragon found her location last month and sent a team to rescue her. Tuyen crossed back into Vietnam on March 31.

After receiving some treatment and support at our emergency shelter, Blue Dragon staff traveled with Tuyen back to her home town. And that was when the full tragedy of Tuyen’s situation became clear.

Instead of a joyful family reunion, Tuyen arrived home to the news that her much-loved mother had died just a month ago.

Instead of a chance to hold her mother, Tuyen went to the family altar to burn incense in her memory.

Tuyen at her mother’s altar.

In time Tuyen will learn to live with her grief, comforted only by the knowledge of how much her mother loved her. Family members report that the mother’s final words were: Please keep looking for my daughter.

At last Tuyen is home; but feels that she has lost everything.

This is why rescue is not enough. It’s vital and it might always be needed; but we must do so much more.

Most importantly, we must do all we can to stop trafficking from happening in the first place. Not just ‘awareness raising’ and telling people to be careful; but actively addressing the causes of human trafficking to keep people safe and put traffickers out of business.

And for people like Tuyen who fall victim to trafficking? Beyond rescue, it’s essential to provide services and support for recovery. Tuyen will need years of assistance and counselling if she is to truly ever heal from this terrible experience.

Human trafficking is happening every day… in many different forms… in every part of the world. It’s a sinister crime and there are many important reasons that we must end it.

Above all is the very human cost it exacts on its victims. For Tuyen’s sake, and in the memory of her mother, we must do everything we can to stop this cruel trade of innocent people.

Blue Dragon is committed to ending human trafficking. Join us on April 12 and 13 for an online discussion about how this is possible and what we can do to achieve it. For details and registration, click this link.

Hold me

Dinh was a challenge to even the most experienced therapists – until we learned what he needed most.

He was a wild child.

“A real ratbag,” as we say in Australian slang.

His name is Dinh. He’s been coming to Blue Dragon for about 7 years now. And when he’s there – boy, do we know it.

When he first started coming, he would enter like a storm on a quiet spring morning. Dinh knew no rules or boundaries and had never been taught any social ettiquette. He would tear the place up, rattle everyone he came in contact with. All with an innocent smile!

But over time, there was something I started to notice. One thing, and one thing only, would calm him down completely: A hug.

“Bế em,” he would say.

His words literally translate as “Hold me,” but they mean more than that. They’re the words that a child says to a parent.

And when you picked him up, held him against you with his arms around your neck, he would finally fall quiet.

That was all he wanted. To be held. Human contact.

The first time we met Dinh, he was covered in scabies and filth. He was building some kind of shelter for himself in a ditch. He was six years old.

Dinh has a mother, but she’s too deep in her own trauma to care for her child. She’s never shown him the affection that he craves. All children need to be held, to experience a loving touch. Sadly, Dinh has grown up without it.

Now he’s 13 and he’s still tiny for his age. He was at Blue Dragon for his classes today, with his sweet disarming smile and the chaos that he always brings.

“Hold me,” he demanded when he saw me.

In a moment, the chaos is gone and Dinh is at peace.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to protect kids from trafficking and exploitation.

Safe, not sound

Tricked and robbed, Van found himself homeless on the streets of the city. But going home wasn’t the end of his problems…

Van is typical of the teens we meet on the streets of Hanoi.

He’s a lovely kid who just wants to have a decent life. He grew up in the mountains with his father and uncles in an old timber house that has just a dirt floor and an open fire for a ‘kitchen’.

Van’s life has always been hard. He barely remembers his mother, who left when he was a toddler. His family lives day to day, hoping that tomorrow they’ll have enough to eat. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

It’s not an easy life for a teenager, so Van made the decision to leave.

He wasn’t really sure what to expect; he just imagined that life far from home would be easier. He dreamt that he would find a job and send money home each month to support his father, who would be proud of his only son.

Van’s dream was noble, but reality proved to be harsh.

He traveled down from the mountains by bus and arrived in the city with no plan, no friends, and nothing in his pocket. Despite his sunny optimism that he’d find a way to get by, he was soon homeless and hungry. A scam ‘job broker’ took his ID card and someone stole his mobile phone, leaving him with no way to call home and get help.

Just as Van is like so many of the kids we meet, his story is painfully familiar.

A social worker (with backpack) meets Van (in white).

When we met Van, he was sleeping in an abandoned construction site. He was frightened and alone beside an open fire he’s made to keep warm. Although he was wary of strangers, he was desperate for a meal and a safe place to sleep, so he gratefully accepted the offer of shelter with Blue Dragon.

And then, after a few days catching up on food and rest, Van was ready to go home.

As we normally do, some staff traveled back with Van to meet his family and see if they need any help. We do this because otherwise we have no way to know if the kids have gone home to a dangerous situation. And we want the families to know us, so they can call if they need to.

Returning home after weeks as a street kid.

Van’s family is delighted that he’s home, and he was all smiles to be back with his dad.

But clearly, this isn’t the end of the story.

It would be easy to say that we’ve done our job: Van is safely home and no longer living on the city streets.

However, the grinding poverty that caused him to become homeless hasn’t changed. So Blue Dragon’s work isn’t yet finished.

Van’s house is in need of repairs. It’s freezing in winter and the rain pours in during the wet season. They don’t even have a water tank or running water in the house, and no space for a toilet or washroom.

Van, his father, and a Blue Dragon social worker.

Beyond that urgent need, Van’s family needs some way to earn a stable income. They’d love to raise some goats and pigs as a step to becoming self sufficient.

A proper place to call home and a way to earn money. That’s all they dream of.

We’re working with them now to develop a plan and then we need to find the money to help. Around $2,000 will transform their lives forever.

Van isn’t quite old enough yet, but in a couple of years he will be ready for vocational training and a job. When that time comes, we’ll be here to help.

Getting kids like Van home to the safety of their family is important – but it isn’t always enough.

They need a sound home, certainty that their basic needs are met, and a reason to hope for the future.

Just the same as all of us.

If you would like to help Van and his family, you can donate here or email me to discuss: Every contribution will help.

** AN UPDATE: As of March 30, wonderful friends of the blog have donated $2,350 to help Van and his family. Thank you!! We will gladly continue accepting further donations, and all money raised will be used directly to support Van. We are excited to have this chance to change his life.